photo of the Royal Veterinary College by Stephen McKay, Geograph

The surprising history of animal medicine in Camden

The London Borough of Camden is absolutely brimming in medical history.

Even today it is still its home to hospitals and clinics, both publicly funded and privately owned, the educational institutions that teach and prepare men and women to work in them, and the residences of past and present pioneers of science and medicine who made it all possible.

But it’s not just humans that benefit from all this knowledge, achievement and what can only be described as exceptional hard graft. Camden is also home to Britain’s veterinary history and its world famous veterinary school.

Some history

It is believed that the history of veterinary medicine actually goes back to 3,000BC , and to a man by the name of Urlugaledinna from Mesopotamia (today’s Syria and Iraq) who was an expert in healing animals; but we are just going to go back to the 18th century, when the Borough of Camden was pretty much still countryside, and a Frenchman called Claude Bourgelat came up with a brilliant and revolutionary idea.

Claude Bourgelat was actually a trained lawyer, but his passion for horsemanship would result in a career change to that of veterinary surgeon who went on to found the world’s first veterinary college in Lyon, France in 1761. And thus veterinary medicine as a profession was born.

Back in Britain, just over a couple of decades later, a series of meetings were held at the George Inn, Odiham, Hampshire, by a group of men known as the Odiham Agricultural Society.            

The George Inn, Odiham Andrew Smith CC BY-SA 2.0

The society’s members were a mixture of ‘Gentlemen of Rank’ and ‘intelligent Farmers’, and they were concerned with the “welfare impact of equine health and welfare from quackery”. Quacks, as they were called, and there were many of them, were simply fraudsters who called themselves doctors but had no medical knowledge whatsoever.  After a meeting in 1785, fundraising began to send two or more boys to Bourgelat’s school in Lyon and to promote the study of farriery (the care and shoeing of equine hooves) in the UK. Before the boys were sent off to France, however, one of the society’s supporters, Granville Penn, the grandson of William Penn (the founder of Pennsylvania, USA), would meet up with another pioneering Frenchman, Charles Benoit Vial de St Bel.

Old print showing Charles Vial De Sainbel in front of RVC
Founder of the Royal Veterinary College
print from the Works of Charles Vial De Sainbell 1785

St Bel was a qualified veterinary surgeon, a graduate of Bourgelat’s school in Lyon who aspired to open a Veterinary School in the UK. He had composed ‘The plan’, which Penn helped him to edit, of which a very rare copy is held by the RCVS (Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, the governing body for veterinary schools in the UK, which is based in Westminster).

Proposals in the 28-page document included:

  • The institution should be composed of a “college or body, associating for the purpose of encouraging veterinary science, and who should provide a school wherein it might be pursued”.
  • Graduates should be allowed “to express their profession by some initial letters such as A.V.P, i.e. Artist Veterinariae Prudens; or others to be hereby agreed on”.

The influence of a horse

In 1791 ‘the Veterinary College, London’ (the RVCs original name) was founded, spurred on (if you’ll pardon the pun) by the death of a very famous racehorse called ‘Eclipse’ in 1789.

Eclipse was an undefeated thoroughbred champion racehorse, winner of 18 races and 11 King’s Plates. All thoroughbreds would have descended from one of three male horses imported to the UK from the East in the 17th and 18th centuries. These three horses, known as foundation sires, were The Byerley Turk, The Darley Arabian and The Godolphin Arabian. Eclipse had bloodlines from both the Darley and Godolphin Arabians. Fast, powerful and strong, Eclipse was an absolute rocket, and incredibly famous. When he died, people wanted to know why.

Veterinary expertise was needed to find the cause of his death at the age of 25  (some horses can live to 30 or even 40 years old), which turned out to be colic, problems with the gastrointestinal tract, which is still quite common in horses today.

Fortunately, St Bel happened to be in England at the time and, as the only qualified vet in the country, carried out the post mortem which revealed that the horse had an abnormally large heart. Even today Eclipse’s skeleton is still kept in one of the College’s learning resource centres. 

Skeleton of Eclipse , by John Gamgee, 1861-2 Wellcome Images CC BY 4.0

The menagerie expands and the RVC is born

Following the foundation of the ‘Veterinary College, London’, St Bel was made Principal, sadly dying a year later. He was succeeded by Edward Coleman who went on to manage it for a further 46 years,cementing its foundation and establishing its reputation.

Initially the college just treated horses, but this would soon develop to include the treatment of cattle, dogs and a whole menagerie of other animals including cats.

In 1875 the college received a Royal Charter of Incorporation from Queen Victoria, making it the Royal Veterinary College, the only veterinary school in the country to hold one to date, and since 1949 has been a full part of the University of London, whilst the Royal Charter allows it to retain its independence.

Today the RVC has grown from a small school with four students to campuses on both its original site in Royal College Street, Camden plus an extensive site in rural Hertfordshire. 

The Camden site is also home to the RVC’s Beaumont Animal Hospital, which is a veterinary practice, and the Hertfordshire site in Hawkshead is home to The Queen Mother Hospital for Animals which offers more specialised and complex treatments.

At both the Camden and Hertfordshire campuses, budding vets can learn anything from stem cell treatment in horses, to ophthalmology in dogs or even the vaccination of meerkats; likewise, all kinds of animals will be able to benefit from these treatments and more.

As well as the Royal Veterinary College, during the age of the industrial revolution when  when the world was a horse-drawn society, parts of Camden were also home to other establishments providing care for our four-legged friends who were sick and in pain.

The Camden Horse Hospitals

The first Horse Hospital was situated in what was then Camden Goods Yard and the grade II listed building is still there today in what is now Camden Market. In its heyday (sorry — another pun) the Victorian structure, built by Eric Braun, could accommodate up to 92 horses in the two-storey building. The ramp at the side is called a ‘creep’ and was built to enable the horses to get to the upper floor.

photo of the horse hospital at Camden Lock
Horse Hospital,Camden Lock (c) Paula Pickin 2021

The Goods Yard was a very busy distribution hub with all kinds of goods going all over the country, using three different modes of transport: road, railway and canal. The horses worked in all three: they pulled the carts on the roads, shunted the trains on the railway, and towed the barges on the canal.

The Horse Hospital was where injured horses could rest. The most common injury was to their legs, as it was their legs along with their hooves that did all the work. Treatment meant literally “taking the weight off their feet” by being suspended in a sling which would hang from the rafters; in fact, some of the hooks used to suspend them still remain in parts of the building today.

There was another Goods Yard at Kings Cross, and this was so busy that it had a whole hospital, infirmary and convalescent stables complex including a pond where horses could bathe. But in fact these were improvements that came about after recommendations by Professor J Wortley-Axe of the RVC following a severe outbreak of influenza amongst the horses.

There was yet another horse hospital, this time in Bloomsbury. 

It was situated in a mews-type street, ‘Colonnade’, on the corner of Herbrand Street, and this late 18th century building , like the Camden Town one, is still there today although it is now an arts and entertainments venue. Built by Property Developer James Burton, who had also built much of Bloomsbury, and just like the Camden one, it had specially designed ramps to enable horses to access other floors.

Again this hospital was to allow injured horses to rest, although these horses weren’t working in a goods yard, but were used to pull the Hackney Carriages including Hansom Cabs, the forerunners to London’s motorised Black Taxis. Today’s visitors can still see remnants of this bygone era,including cast iron pillars and some of the  tethering rings used to secure the horses. For more details on this hidden gem check out their website at www.thehorsehospital.com

Sources

  • Royal Veterinary College
  • RCVS Knowledge
  • The Horse Hospital
  • Darley, Peter, King’s Cross Story: 200 Years of History in the Railway Lands. (London, HISTORY Press, 2018)
  • Museum, British, and Juliet Clutton-Brock, Horse Power: A History of the Horse and Donkey in Human Societies, 1st Edition (London: Natural History Museum Publications, 1992)

Featured Image at the top is Royal Veterinary College Stephen McKay CC BY-SA 2.0

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